Community Consultations Worthwhile

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Article submitted by Sister Harmony Raine, pictured here with Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, Shane Simpson, Ed Lalonde, and Barb Nederpel

On January 18th, a group of KDLC delegates attended a Poverty Reduction Consultation meeting facilitated by Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, several local and provincial Ministry staff, and SPARC (Social Planning and Research Council) BC. The Kamloops meeting was one of 28 such events taking place throughout the province, in which the BC government is seeking public input on what a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy for BC should look like.

If there is strength in numbers, then we can be very hopeful that our voices will be heard. This highly engaging and productive meeting, hosted by Lii Michif Otipemisiwak Family and Community Services on the North Shore, was packed to capacity with over a hundred concerned citizens and representatives from a wide range of community organizations, social service agencies, NGO’s, and non-profit groups.

The format was small group, round-table discussions and debates designed to identify key issues contributing to poverty in the region, and more importantly what concrete measures can be taken to address the problems.

Topping the list of immediate concerns were: the lack of safe, affordable housing and supports to go along with housing; stigma faced by the homeless and people living in poverty; compassion fatigue and the day-to-day struggles among workers trying to “meet the needs of their clients”; barriers to accessing services and problems with navigating “the system”; and health / mental health care concerns.

KDLC delegates brought such issues to the table as inadequate wages, the lack of living wage jobs, sustainable job creation, precarity, outsourcing and privatization, skills training, and the dire need for safe, affordable child care.

As always, we were preaching to the already converted in the sense that these types of events generally attract people and organizations already dedicated to social change. That said, I have increasingly been witnessing a real divide among activists, in which Labour is on one side of things and social service agencies, community outreach programs, detox facilities, missions, emergency and transitional housing, food banks, meals programs, faith groups, and other non-profit organizations seem to be banded together on the other side.

Last night was no different, at least in my own small group. “Labour” was the real outlier, and my suggestions about the need to increase the minimum wage to $15, implement a living wage, create green, sustainable, living wage jobs, and support skills training as opposed to mere “education,” were met with some pretty hard resistance.

Most of the retort was familiar: that small Mom & Pop businesses can’t afford to pay higher wages, and will therefore be forced to lay people off or close down, resulting in fewer jobs for local residents… and other bits of rationale along the same lines.

I also heard some arguments I had not heard before. For example, the “unfairness” of implementing a $15 per hour minimum wage or a living wage on existing workers. The rationale here is that if someone has worked hard for “x” number of years to make more than minimum wage, it is unfair that people who have not worked their way up the ladder can now also earn $15 per hour (the old “I paid my dues, you should be expected to pay yours too” mentality).

While it is sad that some businesses might be unable to continue operating with higher staffing costs – and while I empathize with people who have worked hard for a long time only to be in the same wage bracket as workers who have not – it is not up to us to try to rectify those types of scenarios. Business decisions fall onto individual businesses / employers. We need to focus on the fact that rising waters lift all boats.

One argument that did resonate with me was that raising the minimum wage (or wages in general) is really only one part of the equation. A higher minimum wage is still inadequate as long as the cost of living outpaces earnings by such a huge margin. We all agreed that the cost of living, particularly the astronomical cost of housing all across BC, is a core issue. However, I disagreed with my fellow group members’ insistence that the way forward was to reduce the cost of living as opposed to increasing wages.

The ever-escalating cost of living certainly explains how we have created a society of working poor (people who remain in poverty despite working the equivalent of full-time or more) in a relatively affluent society. But while we can make some things more affordable – for instance by increasing subsidized housing units, implementing a universal child care program, and eliminating MSP payments – we can’t reduce the cost of food, fuel, utilities and other necessities. Reducing the cost of living is a rather unachievable goal.

From a labour perspective, wages must keep up with (and preferably exceed) cost of living increases in order to alleviate poverty. Pay is also part of a value system, and we need to pay people what their work, time, efforts, education, training, talents, and personal sacrifices are worth. One of my cohort shared that she has always worked in social services, while her partner, a steelworker, has always earned far more than she does. She stated that society values certain occupations more than others, and that it is clear that steel (big business) is valued more than the lives of human beings. Well said, sister.

In the end, the consensus among our group was that a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy must be multi-faceted and take into account regional differences such as the fact that many communities lack doctors, specialists, and medical facilities, placing an additional financial burden on many poor and working poor who must travel in order to obtain medical care. Our “free” health care system is anything but free – and costlier for some citizens than others.

As a group, we felt that a primary tactic for implementing a poverty reduction strategy is to create public awareness of poverty-related issues. We proposed to the Ministry a series of rotating PSAs that explain WHY we need a poverty reduction plan in BC, and specified that the necessary emotional impact should come from the use of personal stories and testimonials rather than from the use of scare tactics or sensationalism. For those who aren’t moved by emotion, then the messages would also remind people that a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy would cost $3 to $4 billion per year – less than half of the $8 to $9 billion per year we are currently paying to keep families and children trapped in poverty.

For me, the “big take-away” of the evening was that we need to keep having these discussions and change our perspective of poverty in order to create new strategies to address, reduce, and even eliminate it.

Please indulge me as I share a well-known parable that aptly illustrates the difference between “downstream” and “upstream” approaches to social change:

One summer in the village, people gathered for a picnic. As they shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was about to drown!

Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river, and the townspeople were pulling them out as fast as they could. It took great effort, and they began to organize their activities in order to save the babies as they came down the river. As everyone else was busy in the rescue efforts to save the babies, two of the townspeople started to run away along the shore of the river.

“Where are you going?” shouted one of the rescuers. “We need you here to help us save these babies!”

“We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

Labour is one of the entities using an upstream approach. The KDLC’s mandate is not to “give a person a fish” but to teach them to fish (and help them to build boats, string nets, and market their products…).

This philosophy certainly doesn’t negate the seemingly endless need in our society for people and organizations devoted to pulling drowning people out of the river. But an effective, comprehensive poverty reduction strategy, with its emphasis upstream, would help to keep many more people from falling into the water or between the cracks.

The provincial Poverty Reduction consultation process will continue until March 2018.

The KDLC will be hosting their own forum with MLA and Parliamentary Secretary for Poverty Reduction, Mable Elmore on February 6th, 6:00 pm at Desert Gardens.  Everyone is welcome and light food and refreshments will be provided.

Poster for distribution:  Poverty Reduction Engagement

If you have been unable to attend a meeting, your feedback can be submitted as follows:

Online at https://engage.gov.bc.ca/bcpovertyreduction/

By email to BCPovertyReduction@gov.bc.ca

By phone – call and leave a voice mail message: 1-778-698-7746 (Victoria) or, call Enquiry BC and ask for BC Poverty Reduction: 1-800-663-7867 (Calls can be made Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific time.)

Please participate in this very important process.

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